Mistry: Spoof is harmful to Asian women

On Monday I e-mailed the “Single Asians” video — a spoof of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” full of stereotypes about Asians, and Asian women in particular, by the a capella group Mixed Company — to the members of InSight, Yale’s Asian American Women’s Forum. Obviously, racist jokes based on stereotypes are not cool. But how, I asked, does this change when those who tell them — like the four female Asian students in the Mixed Company video — are part of the satirized race?

Our consensus was that regardless of the joke teller’s race, racist jokes can be destructive because they perpetuate harmful stereotypes, the long-range effects of which cannot be controlled by the good intentions of the teller. Scanning the comments under the YouTube and IvyGate video posts, the consensus seemed to be the opposite, that racial self-parody is harmless.

“HELLO, it’s a JOKE. Are you familiar with the concept? … Lighten UP people … Calm down, Asians — you’re not the only ones who get poked fun at,” one user replied. Another mused, “I wonder what bubble all the people offended by this video are living in. For heavens sake Family Guy and The Simpsons are more offensive than this on a regular basis! …Everybody needs to chill out.” The lack of comment from those who found the video offensive was understandable: being told to “lighten up,” “calm down” and get out of your “bubble” isn’t exactly conducive to dialogue. At the risk of sounding like a killjoy not “familiar with the concept” of a joke, I’ll provide the other perspective.

I was made uneasy by parts of this video — not so much by the portrayal of Asian Americans, but by the portrayal of Asian American women. We have all heard of the Asian fetish, attraction towards Asian women that reduces them to obedient and submissive sex objects. Although this “yellow fever” may seem benign (perhaps a little creepy at most), it can have real and dangerous consequences.

Rapists have admitted to targeting Asian women precisely because they are stereotyped as more compliant. Sallie Kim and Shannon Stockdale, previous leaders of InSight before me, wrote of an alarming trend in perverse Asian fetish incidents on college campuses in a 2005 column in the News (“For Asian women, ‘fetish’ is less than benign,” April 14, 2005). Particularly shocking was their description of the videotaped rape of two Asian college students who were told by the rapists that if they reported the crimes, “the videotapes would be sent to their fathers. The three white assailants admitted targeting Asian women … because they believed that this same submissiveness and cultural shame would prevent the women from reporting the assaults.”

“Single Asians” — however inadvertently — stands alongside “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” as media that degrades and objectifies Asian women as “geisha[s] just for you” (as one line of the song says), and this not only reinforces popular perceptions of Asian women as passive and docile but also leads to real-life tragedy. In light of this, the comment made by one IvyGate reader (which perhaps wouldn’t have been made on a non-Asian themed song) becomes rather upsetting: “I’m both turned on and offended at the same time. I want an apology … and a date.”

Maybe if the four girls who appeared in the video had thought about their song in a feminist context, they would have deleted the middle two verses.

With that said, I do not believe that this video meant to say that all Asian women are China dolls. I found the other four verses to be a funny and light-hearted spoof on what are — in one IvyGate reader’s words — “the stereotypes that Asians get everyday [sic],” in the same way that my favorite movie, “Bend it Like Beckham,” is a spoof on stereotypes about South Asians.

As another IvyGate reader pointed out: “I assumed not so much that it was a parody of Asians, but more that it was making fun of people who think Asians are like that. My Asian friends always get annoyed when people assume that they’re into math and science, or that they’re Chinese when they’re not.”

Unfortunately, however, for every person who laughs at the video, understanding it to be a clever parody of a stereotype, there will be one person who doesn’t quite understand, and buys into the stereotype itself.

Kavita Mistry is a sophomore in Berkeley College and the president of InSight: Yale’s Asian American Women’s Forum and Chapter of NAPAWF.

Comments

  • Eli guy

    Kavita, good argument, but I don't think you take it far enough.

    While its true that the sexually degrading verses are particulary disturbing and in poor taste, the same can be said for all the other verses. The 'model minority' stereotype can be just as damaging to Asians — especially when it leads to policies like 'Asians don't need government support' or 'There are too many Asians in elite universities'. These are both real, and especially pernicious, to newer Asian immigrants, and those who come from lower class backgrounds. In creating the imaginary 'model minority', people, in both their subconscious and their politics, can eliminate economic class, as well as national origin, as germane to understanding differences within various Asian and Asian-American communities, and within the country at large.

    To quickly respond to what I am sure will be outraged, self-proclaimed humorous people: satire is an effective means of creating social change. It is also a useful mechanism for criticism. However, this video does neither. It appears to have been intended merely 'to be funny,' which is the defense of all ethnic and sexual jokes, no matter how degrading and harmful. More specifically, this is parody (of Single Ladies) — an ethncally problematic parody. But, on the off chance that this was intended or will be portrayed as 'satire,' then this merely fails, miserably. Simply mimicing racist stereotypes does not constitute a satire. It's perpetuation.

    And it's not funny.

  • ……Yup

    Spot on Kavita.

  • Anonymous

    lighten up child

  • Anonymous

    i agree 100%. these asian-american women stereotypes are getting incredibly old and not funny, real fast.

  • Kavita Mistry

    Dear Eli guy:

    In response to point (1):
    Yes, I do believe that the model minority stereotype is harmful, but I think that the harm of the Asian-woman-as-submissive stereotype at Yale (and elsewhere) is much greater. Rape and sexual harassment cannot be compared to a rejection from college or less government support, at least in my opinion.

    In response to point (2):
    OED definition of the verb 'to parody': "to produce or constitute a humorously exaggerated imitation of".
    I think the video falls into this category. I suggest you watch some real 20th century racist cartoons, and the difference between parody and intentional perpetuation will become clearer. The trouble arises when people are not clever enough to understand the parody and buy into the stereotypes.

  • David L

    Learn to take a joke.

  • Why…

    "Learn to take a joke" is the ultimate defense for indefensibily dumb, unimaginative, careless racial jokes. Of course, when people are successfully funny about race (Chapelle, Pryor, etc.), no one needs to say that. Why don't you take a shot at explaining the joke to us? Such an exercise, conducted sincerely, will explain just what the problem here is. Nicely done article, Kavita.

  • Yale Girl

    Kavita,

    Nice response. It's well said!

    However, you contradicted yourself in your response to Eli Guy. You say that the model minority stereotype and stereotypes about Asian women are not comparable. However, immediately preceding that sentence, you say the harm done by stereotypes about Asian women is "much greater" as if you could compare the model minority stereotype and stereotypes for women on the same scale.

    As an Asian women of the middle class, I find it highly offensive to value gender over class.

  • Kavita Mistry

    Dear Yale Girl:

    I apologize for any offense, and hopefully I can untangle the semantic web I created! =)

    What I mean when I say that the effects are "not comparable" is that the way I see it, the harms from one are much, much greater than the harms from the other. I'm sure that most people would agree that the tragedy of rape is more damaging than the sadness that accompanies a college rejection, or the hardships of being denied government support.

    Although I don't value gender over class, my experience at Yale is that people generally understand that the model minority myth is a myth--and if they are referencing it, they tend to be speaking in jest (that is, they understand it to be a myth). The Asian-woman-as-submissive myth is more pernicious because in my experience, fewer people on campus recognize it to be a myth (Asian women are seen as exotic and stereotyped as submissive). This was why I was upset by the middle two stanzas rather than the other parts of the song.

    Dear David L:

    Please reread the Op-Ed, particularly the third paragraph from the end.

  • Gaius Lucilius ('10)

    The "success" of satire is difficult to gauge… Kavita's argument is compelling, and I am glad that she wrote this piece. What is the alternative, though? Censorship isn't a viable solution… It seems that it takes items like this to bring these issues out into the open in a more than wink-wink, nudge-nudge way.

  • ASSinine

    "In light of this, the comment made by one IvyGate reader (which perhaps wouldn’t have been made on a non-Asian themed song) becomes rather upsetting: 'I’m both turned on and offended at the same time. I want an apology … and a date.'"

    Who gave you permission to quote me? Besides, I knew fully well what I was saying and how it would be taken. Consider it "stirring the pot" or "rocking the boat." In the little spare time I have, I enjoy provoking PC liberals into inane analyses.